Prime Minister Stephen Harper has backed Canada's embattled envoy to Kabul, endorsing the ambassador's criticisms of Afghan President Hamid Karzai despite fears they could damage relations.
Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan William Crosbie wrote a memo to Ottawa this week warning that a rift between the West and Mr. Karzai might explode with the release on the WikiLeaks website of U.S. diplomatic cables in which he is recorded as criticizing Mr. Karzai for misuses of power.
The cable is one of hundreds of thousands of U.S. documents that Wikileaks has been gradually making public, creating ripples around the world. The leak of Mr. Crosbie's memo to the Canadian government, obtained by The Globe and Mail and the National Post, has led to an RCMP investigation in Canada.
Mr. Crosbie told his superiors in the memo that he might need to be replaced if the sharp criticisms of Mr. Karzai and his family were exposed. However, the Prime Minister stood by the ambassador.
"Ambassador Crosbie doesn't represent the government of Afghanistan, he represents the government of Canada," Mr. Harper told reporters in Mississauga. "I can say he expressed certain concerns about the government of Afghanistan and I think the statements of the [Canadian] government are similar."
The cable was a summary of a Feb. 20 meeting at which Mr. Crosbie complained about the U.S. response to Mr. Karzai's attempts to re-write Afghanistan's electoral laws to give himself more power.
It was released as part of the Wikileaks revelations late on Thursday, and quoted the Canadian ambassador warning that the international community must confront Mr. Karzai or the Afghan President might establish the kind of kingpin-control his half-brother, Ahmed Walik Karzai – described in other cables from U.S. diplomats as corrupt drug-trafficker – is said to operate in Kandahar province.
"Ambassador Crosbie told the [U.S.] Ambassador that getting this right is a bottom line issue for the Canadians. He was emotional, saying the issue 'makes my blood boil,' as he described the Canadian view that the international community must stand up for the silent majority or be blamed for letting Karzai and his family establish across the country the system of patronage and control that exists in Kandahar," says the cable, recording a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
"We must be prepared for confrontation with Karzai on this issue, he said, or risk losing credibility among our own population if we go along with a rigged election. He argued that a new generation of Afghans is working to run for Parliament and they are watching to see if the electoral changes will happen. 'We can't be seen to collude with it,' he said."
The Harper government has never been as blunt as Mr. Crosbie in expressing its mistrust for Mr. Karzai and his entourage, and has continued to insist progress is being made toward democracy and stability in Afghanistan. Even so, the Prime Minister has grown increasingly cool to Mr. Karzai and skeptical about the mission in Afghanistan, and he blasted the Afghan President last April when Mr. Karzai said Western pressure might make him join the Taliban. Canada has, moreover, repeatedly urged the Afghan government to combat corruption.
According to the U.S. cable, Mr. Crosbie also suggested to the U.S. ambassador that Western nations should look to back other Afghans, and not depend on Mr. Karzai, who might be controlled by his entourage.
"Crosbie said that we'll win when the Afghans have confidence they can run this country, but we can't get too dug into supporting Karzai; it's critical we build support for others. Crosbie said he has a sinking feeling whether Karzai is actually in control, or whether it's his brothers and other advisers who are running him."
Mr. Crosbie's case is the first sign of real potential damage to Canada's international relations from the leaks. His note to Ottawa was obtained by The Globe and Mail and the National Post. Ottawa has called in the RCMP to investigate the leak, government officials say.
"I can confirm an RCMP investigation," said Melissa Lantsman, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. "I can't confirm what they are investigating."
Neither The Globe and Mail nor the National Post had been contacted by the RCMP by Thursday evening.
Mr. Crosbie's memo also exposed fears among Western nations that cables still to be released could have "cataclysmic fallout," and "feed Karzai's paranoia," leading to a confrontation with the United States and its allies.
The memo indicates that the U.S. embassy in Kabul worries not only that the leaked cables will expose Afghans who have worked closely with Americans, but that it will embolden Mr. Karzai to block the opening of a new parliament by cancelling or delaying election results – which they fear he is already angling to do "by stealth" by encouraging Afghanistan's Attorney-General to arrest election officials.
In Ottawa, NDP Leader Jack Layton cited the cables as a reason to cancel Canadian plans to send almost 1,000 troops to train Afghan Army soldiers. "Why are the Conservatives training 300,000 soldiers for these guys?" he said in the House of Commons.
Other cables released on Thursday night from the WikiLeaks trove revealed deep U.S. concerns about endemic corruption, Mr. Karzai's erratic leadership, and that the Afghan President views the Americans with suspicion.
"When Karzai drifted towards a reiteration of his anti-U.S. conspiracy theories on several occasions, I was able to refocus the conversation on how the U.S. and Afghanistan governments can work together in the near and medium term to achieve combined success," Mr. Eikenberry reported in a July, 2009 cable.
In another cable, Mr. Karzai is recorded dismissing the military contributions of dozens of countries that have sent small contingents of 100 to 200 troops to serve in Afghanistan as a useless "headache." The conversation, with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears in a section the cable's author titled "non-U.S. NATO troops can stay home."
"He remarked that if the commitments are small contingents from many nations, it would be more of a 'headache.' He quipped that if these countries only announced their plan to deploy additional troops, without actually sending them, it would be easier," the cable states. "Admiral Mullen noted the political significance of these troop commitments, despite the challenges they might entail."